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Luxembourg: culture in the countryside

Luxembourg: culture in the countryside

Georges Rouzeau - 2011-01-10

This forgotten city in the country, leafy and romantic with its rivers and countless remnants of fortifications, easily merits a weekend.

More than a stronghold of high finance, the capital of the Duchy of Luxembourg is a peaceful little provincial city set in the countryside. Indeed, Luxembourg’s charm stems from its gardens, parks, military ruins and amazing topography. Built on a rocky plateau punctuated by ravines and bridges, the city boasts an irresistible natural setting. At the bottom of the valley, to the north and south, lazily wind two fairytale rivers, the Pétrusse and the Alzette. Also striking is the predominance of military architecture: for centuries in Luxembourg, ramparts and military buildings were erected to hold at bay – with varying degrees of success – the Spanish, French, Austrians and Prussians. Indeed, in 1867, when the Prussians departed, fortifications outnumbered civilian buildings!
The romantic character of the place was not lost on Victor Hugo, who sketched it in ink during his exile. There is, in fact, nothing natural about its picturesque quality: in the late 19th century, Luxembourg called on a French landscape architect, Édouard André, to “demilitarise” the city by creating parks and gardens. He certainly pulled it off: all the Luxembourgers or foreigners in exile that you meet here are full of praise for their environment. A city in the country is something you can’t put a price on! Actually you can – in the city centre the rents are on a par with those in Paris… But otherwise, thanks to its low VAT, the prices (particularly in restaurants) are not at all excessive.
The old town of Luxembourg
The size of a pocket handkerchief, the old town can be explored on foot in half a day, starting from the Place d’Armes. Its charm stems from its architectural eclecticism, a blend of rare Renaissance façades and neo-Gothic palaces. You can easily combine tours with shopping, particularly in the main shopping and pedestrian streets such as rue du Curé, rue des Capucins and Grand’ Rue.
The district’s star attraction is, of course, the Grand-Ducal Palace, where many of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg’s official activities continue to take place. The left wing – the oldest one (16th century) – is undoubtedly the most beautiful, with its turrets and geometric abstract ornamentations emblematic of the Spanish Netherlands. The building furthest to the right, of neo-Gothic and neo-Classical style, houses the seat of Parliament and its sixty members. With a little patience, you may well catch sight of the Grand Duke, sitting in the back of his Daimler.
Those with inquisitive minds can visit the Luxembourg City History Museum. Of remarkable design, this place combines several old houses behind an immense glass façade. The city’s history is related with the aid of old documents (manuscripts, seals, weapons, helmets) and new techniques. One interesting feature: the museum has a 60 m2 lift which passes through almost the entire depth of the rocky plateau as far as the lower town, the Grund.
We fell in love with the historic cradle of the city of Luxembourg, located around the National Museum of History and Art at the edge of the rocky plateau, to the east. The museum forecourt is none other than the old fish market, once the crossroads of two Roman trade routes, Paris-Trier and Metz-Aachen. Extended, redeveloped and modernised in recent years, the National Museum of History and Art is surprising for the pleasantness of its exhibition space design and the quality of its collections, which go from prehistory to Picasso via Luxembourg painting of the 19th century.
All the streets around the museum are worth a look, for a winding medieval layout, a corner tower, cobblestones, a Baroque house. Less than ten years ago this area had an incurably bad reputation. Exemplary restoration and a gradual realisation of the city’s tourist potential (inaugurated with the status of European capital of culture in 1995) have transformed the district. Rue Sigefroi then leads to the Chemin de la Corniche, also nicknamed “Europe’s most beautiful balcony”. This is no hackneyed expression, since the view from here is breathtaking, from the bottom of the valley to the horizon. Cliffs, the ruins of Luxembourg castle, small terraced gardens, Neumünster Abbey and the remains of the old walls make up a magnificent tableau.
On the Kirchberg plateau
The Luxembourg that we all know (from television) – that of the European institutions, banks and big company headquarters – is here. According to the locals, in the evening, this district – much of it developed by Ricardo Bofill – is sorely lacking in atmosphere. But it is nevertheless worth coming here to see two architectural masterpieces. First, Christian de Portzamparc’s Philharmonie, a superb white structure surrounded by a forest of lofty columns. Inside, this curved building houses two concert halls, one with 2,000 seats and another specially dedicated to chamber music, where the quality of the acoustics vies with the elegance of the place. After a concert, you can enjoy dinner at the Philarmonie’s restaurant, Papila.
A visit to the Musée d’Art moderne Grand-Duc Jean (MUDAM, museum of modern art) built by Ieoh Ming Pei (architect of the Pyramide du Louvre), which opened in June 2006, is an absolute must. This immaculately white monumental structure is presented as the continuation of the remains of the Trois Glands (Three Acorns) fortress, which was part of the old Fort Thüngen designed by Vauban. Moreover, you have to cross the old dry moat to enter the MUDAM. The place is worth a visit as much for its vast interior spaces, often lit by glass roofs, as for its content: there are not really any permanent collections, but instead works that are intended to be presented in rotation.
National Tourist Office
Gare centrale
B.P. 1001
1010 Luxembourg
Tel: 00 352 42 82 82 20

This forgotten city in the country, leafy and romantic with its rivers and countless remnants of fortifications, easily merits a weekend.

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